middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Read: Roll For Initiative

Roll For Initiative (Running Press Kids)
Written by Jaime Formato 

Tabletop roleplaying games have opened up children & adults to their creativity for decades, having successfully weathered the inane “satanic panic” of the 1980s. In Roll For Initiative, we meet Riley Henderson, a middle schooler suddenly thrust into a new situation. Her older brother, Devin, has started college across the country in California while her mom is picking up more and more shifts at her retail job. This leaves Riley by herself most afternoons, and into the evening, yearning for the Dungeons & Dragons group her brother was the Dungeon Master for. A chance meeting on the bus has Riley befriending Lucy, who has been curious about D&D but has no one to teach her the game. Despite initial misgivings, Riley decides to be a DM for the first time, and she and Lucy have a lot of fun. Eventually, two more girls join the group, and they spend every Saturday playing out adventures in a magical world.

But the real world begins to creep in on the game. One girl’s mother sees it as a distraction from her studying. Devin tries to DM for the girls via Zoom, and it is a disaster as he’s very strict and always adheres to the rules, which makes it not so much fun for the players. Riley does a lot of growing up over this time and eventually clashes with her older brother when he comes home for winter break. Roll For Initiative, written by a school teacher who plays D&D in real life, is an excellent coming-of-age story that shows how these interactive experiences can build friendships and confidence.

As someone who loves tabletop RPGs, this is a great book to lead into playing the game for real. The stories from these collaborative gaming sessions can be entertaining & exciting. I’ve often discovered people who aren’t ordinarily creative & expressive seem to find a way to be in the context of playing a roleplaying game. The experiences of Riley are also shared by many other children even if they don’t play D&D. She’s infantilized by her mother and brother simply because she’s the youngest person in the household. Riley also feels insecure because of her interests. It helps when she discovers people she wouldn’t expect who are into them too. This novel is a fantastic entry into contemporary realistic fiction and shares a lot of similar themes and tones with the popular work of Raina Telgemeier.

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